February 17, 2010

The moon waxes and wanes; the tides ebb and flow. The sun rises from the east and sets on the western horizon; the winds blow in and blow out and carries with it freshness and fecundity, even as it brings sand, surf, soil, and sultriness to all and sundry. There are always two sides to every coin, two aspects to every question, and two apparently (at least initially) contradictory positions to every thing under the heavens.

Qoheleth of old sang of this with poetic precision and searing insight … popularized by Pete Seeger many moons and suns ago … “to everything turn, turn, turn; there is a season turn, turn, turn … and a time for every purpose under heaven … a time to be born, a time to die …”

I have it on the authority of developmental psychologists that maturity is basically the capacity to blend two seemingly opposing poles of one and the same continuum. One is either too generous or too pusillanimous; too hardworking or too lazy … Moralists consistently spoke of virtue being in the middle – not exactly in the mathematical mean of things, but in the ability to discern when to wax and when to wane; when to exact and when to relax; when to talk and when to hold back. Virtus stat in medio!

The perfect model of such “temperance” is seen in the Church’s liturgical calendar. There is a time for everything under the heavens. We Catholics sure know how to celebrate. We roll out the equivalent of the red carpet on days called “solemnities” and “feasts.” We belt out in lusty singing of the Gloria and Alleluia during Easter, Christmas, and solemnities and feasts. But we also know how to be low keyed, to take a figurative back seat on certain days.

We start today, Ash Wednesday, such a holding back, definitely not in a sado-masochistic, self-flagellating way, but for a very positive set of reasons. We hold back on Ash Wednesday. We go low keyed. We take a deliberate step back to take stock of where we are going, to see and plan ahead, and discern whether we are on the right track or not. We retreat, sort of, take two steps back in order to think about all that ultimately matters.

And all that matters has to do with integrating and keeping in healthy tension, two sides of the reality of our being human – now prone to greatness and grandiosity; now given in to grouchiness and Grinch-like pusillanimity and selfishness. Experience teaches us more than convincingly … We are a sinful people, and we all have “fallen short of the glory of God.” We have gone to excesses … We either eat too much or too little. We either splurge and party like never before, or we deprive ourselves in an obsessive-compulsive way.

Today, Ash Wednesday, it is all too easy for people to think of Lent as a kill-joy phase of the Church’s year. People speak of deprivation, of giving up, of belt-tightening. I have heard one too many Catholics speak of Lent as a time to give up their favorite hamburger, or eat less, or spend less, or otherwise, go on suffering mode.

Yes … Lent is that, but not only that. Lent that Ash Wednesday opens is positive, not negative. It is all about going and doing, and not about pulling back and saying no to life in general.

It is all about appreciating both poles in the totality of human experience. It is all about finding one’s place in the continuum of life and appreciating the totality of what life offers. It is all about finding one’s sense of balance amidst the complexity of life that cannot be reduced simply to either being good or bad; to being one or the other in a world that does not tolerate grey areas.

Ash Wednesday does not tell us to suddenly hate what the world offers. It tells us, in fact, to love them enough to let them go, in a way. It means to appreciate everything in the world enough as to put them all in perspective.

Ash Wednesday opens this forty-day period of weighing things over, discerning everything so as to be able to prioritize, because one has put things in proper perspective.

Life is a big big cause for celebration. We celebrate life because it is a gift. We did not will ourselves to life …. No … we were called to life by Someone who has the power over life and death. We did celebrate it with panache last Christmas – the birth of the author of life, who suffered and died so that we might live … to the full, that is, life in its fullness. But even the author of life Himself shows us the way to this fullness of life … by way of a grain of wheat that must die so as to bear fruit in plenty. He shows us what it means to go to greater heights, by falling on the ground, by being humble like he was, “who took the form of a slave and became one like us” … yes … “for the life of the world!”

Lent is all about gaining this perspective. It does not mean loving life less, but loving what God values more, and consequently loving the world enough to be able “to care and not to care.”

I don’t mean to spoil the genius of T.S. Eliot with my ramblings, but I think this is, at least partly, what he could mean in these lines (and dozens of other lines):

Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks

To care and not to care. To love passionately means to care for everything that smacks of life. But to love truly and fully would also mean to care enough as to care for better things, for things that transcend even the very things that we love dearly. It means to be able “set our sights on things above” rather than merely on things below. It means to love God fully and the world truly, but in proper perspective.

I join T.S. Eliot in prayer … Teach us O Lord, to care … to care for everything you have created, others, the world, the fruit of your handiwork. Teach us, too, however, not to care for them too much as to forget all about You and the values that go beyond the very things we care for. Teach us to “sit still” and contemplate the beauty of all that points to the greatest beauty that is You. Teach us to be still, even if, at times, we sit “among these rocks” that are known all too familiarly as the “hard knocks of life” – the “sweat and care and cumber; sorrows passing number!” May we so love You and everything that is in You, as to have PEACE …. Peace in Your will …

That Your will be done, not mine!”

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119-A Route 10

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